ATLANTA — He didn't know it at the time, but when Judge William Riley took 14 juvenile probationers to help an Atlanta neighborhood with its spring cleanup, he entered a bold, new realm of providing justice.
On that warm Saturday two years ago, the teens made small repairs to buildings and painted over graffiti. Then a community leader corralled them and, leading them to a nearby crack house, had the young offenders pick up broken bottles and discarded needles littered in front of it. He told the judge he wanted the kids to see what a crack house does to a neighborhood.
Suddenly, Judge Riley saw the need to structure community service so that offenders see firsthand how crime affects a community. "A bell went off in my head," he says, "and I knew that this is what we had to do more of."
With that realization, Riley has helped push Atlanta into the forefront of a movement that's shaking up judicial chambers from New York to Oregon. The new trend creates separate courts for low-level crimes, called community courts, where officials try to change behavior through treatment and exposure rather than jail time.
"They make justice local; they make justice speedy," says Gary Brown of the Fund for Modern Courts, based in New York. "Community courts are an effort to stop repeat offenders and break the cycle of crime in a creative way."
Some see community courts as a swing toward rehabilitation - and away from punishment - in the ever-moving criminal-justice pendulum. But advocates say these courts do something few other programs have tried: They build strong links between the court, the offender, and groups and mentors right in the local community.
So, people whose crimes are related to drug or alcohol abuse get treatment from local social-service agencies. Or, as in the case of Riley's 14 offenders, not only do they perform community service in the community (as opposed to picking up trash out on the interstate), but local leaders have more opportunities to mentor them.
"Law enforcement is moving away from case processing," says Catherine Cole, a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who specializes in community prosecution. "Instead, they're adopting problem-solving techniques, looking for partnerships with their communities, and partnering with other law-enforcement agencies."
Back to community
Community courts are the final wave in a big shift in law enforcement, experts say. First, community policing rewrote the rules for police forces. Then, district attorneys began community prosecution, in which they reprioritize their cases to take into account the quality-of-life concerns of local residents.
Now judges, too, are joining the connect-with-the-community movement. In Boston, a judge routinely orders prostitutes to attend HIV-education classes and will relax a teen's curfew if the student can make honor roll. In Detroit, first offenders guilty of hand-gun violations are sentenced to a four-hour class on firearms law and safety.
As many as 12 community courts, in cities from Hartford, Conn., to St. Louis, are expected to be operating in coming years, according to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.
Hard to define
What exactly makes a community court is still vague. The strongest example is the Midtown Community Court in New York's Manhattan. There, since 1993, anyone who pleads guilty to a misdemeanor in the Midtown area is immediately sentenced to local community service or to treatment programs inside the courthouse. In a traditional courtroom, many of these crimes - such as panhandling, prostitution, and low-level drug dealing - would be dismissed. By intervening, especially in the large percentage of cases stemming from addiction, a host of small crimes can be prevented, community court advocates say.
Results in Manhattan seem to bear that theory out. In an 18-month period from 1994 to 1996, prostitution arrests dropped by 60 percent. In 1997, 75 percent of repeat offenders sentenced to community service completed their sentences, compared with 50 percent for New York's regular court.
Not everyone is a community court supporter. In New York, legal experts are concerned that misdemeanor offenders before the Midtown court are treated differently than are similar offenders elsewhere in the city. Other critics across the country worry that the courts are not the appropriate venue for parceling out social services.
In Atlanta, where a community court may be in place by 2000, social-service agencies themselves have raised concerns. "If we divert people [from the municipal court] and there isn't treatment, it will be just like deinstitutionalization was back in the '80s," says Cynthia Wainscott of the Mental Health Association of Georgia. "If we're going to divert them, there's got to be some really sharp planning about how to have services ready on the day we start the project."